Where are the ‘settled’ homes to rehouse homeless families?

Today, the Government published the latest quarterly homelessness statistics and they provide important lessons on the root causes and real scale of homelessness and the action government needs to take.

The number of households which councils accepted a duty to rehouse increased slightly during January to March 2015.  So no real change there.  Statutory homelessness is neither substantially going down nor up on last year.  But it’s when you take a longer view that pressures become apparent: the number of households accepted as homeless by local authorities has gone up 36% since 2009/10.

In 2014/15 councils rehoused 54,430 homeless households.  That’s the equivalent of a city about the size of Oxford being rehoused by councils in England under the homelessness legislation every year.  Most of them were families with children with nowhere else to turn. It’s important to acknowledge both the scale of the problem and the strength of the solutions; specifically the help the homelessness legislation, and the councils who administer it, give to so many homeless people.

But behind the headline figures, another story emerges.

These 54,430 households represent just under half of the 112,000 who actually applied for statutory assistance.  The remainder were told they were not owed a rehousing duty because they failed one of the key tests.  Either they didn’t meet the strict legal definition of homelessness (25%); weren’t considered to have a ‘priority need’ for rehousing (18%) or were ‘intentionally homeless’ (8%).  That’s nearly 60,000 households who were told by the council their application for rehousing was refused.

The statutory homelessness tests mean that it’s certainly not easy to be rehoused by the council.

If we dig into Government statistics a bit further we can see that in 2013/14, councils in England dealt with 227,800 homelessness cases outside the protections of the homelessness legislation – through the ‘housing options’ approach introduced in the mid-2000s.  Of these, just under a half (98,000), were found alternative accommodation, mainly in hostels, houses in multiple occupation or the private rented sector.  So councils are dealing with many more cases of homelessness outside the legislation than show up in today’s statutory homelessness figures. Focusing on the statutory figures only risks underplaying the problem.

But, despite these barriers to statutory homelessness assistance, the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation (TA) – awaiting settled housing – is going up and up.  Today’s statistics show that on 31 March 2015, there were 64,610 homeless households in TA, an 11% increase on the previous year.  There were 5,270 households in B&B, an increase of 21% on last year.  More households were found to be homeless and in priority need in the last quarter than left TA. Why is this?

The fact is that homelessness occurs when people can’t access suitable housing, either because they can’t afford it or they can’t find a landlord to let to them. And these same pressures, as well as the lack of social housing, are making it harder for councils to rehouse homeless households.

The vast majority of homeless households in TA (75%) were placed by London councils.  Where is the ‘settled housing’ in London to move them on to?  The supply of social rented housing at genuinely low rents is dwindling; replaced by ‘affordable rent’ housing, with rents based on overheated market rates; while changes to local housing allowance, which have made it harder for private tenants to afford their rent, have clearly played a role in the majority of private landlords preferring not to let to claimants.

To cope London councils are increasingly accommodating homeless households in more deprived areas of the capital, or out of Greater London entirely, which the homelessness legislation allows them to do so as long as certain safeguards and checks are met.  A record 16,810 households were in TA in another area this quarter; a 30% increase on last year.

So while councils are working hard, we should remember that this assistance comes at a personal cost. Do we want our housing policy to compel homeless households – families, with children settled in school and part of a local community – to move to another area because of the collective failure of our national housing crisis?